Archive for January, 2010

I probably shouldn’t be laughing about this, but I can’t help myself.  When a group of Weight Watchers members in Sweden got together recently for their regular weigh-in, the floor collapsed.  As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.  Here are some quotes from the online news story:

“We suddenly heard a huge thud; we almost thought it was an earthquake and everything flew up in the air,” one of about 20 group members said to the Smalandsposten newspaper. “The floor collapsed in one corner of the room and along the walls.”

After the initial collapse on Wednesday evening, the floor started to cave in other parts of the room, and the stench of sewage crept into the clinic, which is in Vaxjo, a city in south central Sweden. The group is looking for an alternate location for future meetings, Weight Watchers consultant Therese Levin told the Swedish paper.

 Since they were able to break the floor badly enough to stir up some sewage, I’m guessing these people were 1) brand-new members of Weight Watchers or 2) long-time members of Weight Watchers.

I’ve known a handful of people who joined Weight Watchers at least once — all women, by the way.  They all lost some weight.  And they all gained it back, usually with a few extra pounds as a going-away present. 

Given what Weight Watchers believes constitutes a good diet, I’m not surprised.  Their entire program is based on the belief that the federal government’s nutrition guidelines are actually based on something resembling science.  So Weight Watchers preaches the same guidelines:  fat is bad, a bit of protein is okay, and carbohydrates are wonderful.

I never joined Weight Watchers, but before I knew better, I did try living on their low-fat Smart Ones meals (along with Lean Cuisines and other diet meals I could nuke.)  By the end of the day, I’d be famished.  Eventually I’d give up and then, like most dieters, blame myself for not having any discipline.  Now I understand the problem wasn’t a lack of discipline; it was a lack of good nutrition.

To illustrate the problem, I went to the Weight Watchers site and put together a sample diet for one day.  Since I’m a male, I allowed myself about 1700 calories.  Figuring three meals and couple of side dishes, I chose a breakfast sandwich, angel hair pasta with marinara, chicken enchiladas, chicken on grilled flatbread, mac and cheese, and rice and beans.  That’s a pretty fair sample of the kind of meals I chose back in the day.  Here’s how they add up:

Total Calories: 1673
Fat: 37 grams
Protein: 77 grams
Carbs: 258 grams

As a percent of total calories, it works out to 20% fat, 18% protein, and 62% carbohydrates — just what the FDA prescribes.  It’s also a prescription for hunger.

If you’re a regular reader or have seen Fat Head, you already know that fat is the most satiating macronutrient …  in addition to being cricual for mood, hormone formation, vitamin absorption, etc.  I won’t go into the many wonders of fat here, except to say that this diet contains far too little of it.  That’s one reason I was so hungry.

The diet is also too low in protein.  The FDA would approve, but not the people who actually know what they’re talking about, like Drs. Mike and Mary Dan Eades.  According to their calculations, I need more like 120 grams of protein per day.  Eating too little protein produces exactly the kind of physical effects dieters don’t want.

For one, it’ll make you hungry — never mind the calories.  Research shows that primates eat until they satisfy their protein requirements.  If the food is low in protein, they’ll eat more of it.  Here are some quotes from an article on the subject:

Nutritional ecologist Professor David Raubenheimer’s just-published collaborative study with international colleagues found the Bolivian rainforest spider monkey regulates protein intake by eating greater quantities of low protein/high carbohydrate foods when protein-rich foods are not available.

“This is interesting because our experiments show that humans do the same,” says Professor Raubenheimer from the University’s Institute of Natural Sciences at Albany. The consequence is the current obesity epidemic.

Professor Raubenheimer has been involved in a range of similar studies on other primates, as well as human subjects in Australia, the Philippines and Jamaica, to observe how the protein content of their diets influences energy intake.

The findings, published in the latest issue of the journal Behavioural Ecology, reinforce the theory that humans and other primates are physiologically predisposed to maintain a constant level of protein in their diets. But when the range of foods available to them is low in protein (yet high in fats and carbohydrates) they are compelled to eat greater quantities in order to maintain correct protein levels.

Trust me, I definitely felt compelled to eat greater quantities.  I just didn’t allow myself to, at least until I couldn’t stand it anymore. 

The other problem with eating too little protein is muscle loss.  I’ve heard some researchers claim people lose the same amount of weight on almost any diet if the calories are controlled — that hasn’t been my experience, but let’s suppose it’s true.  So what?  The point of dieting isn’t really to lose weight, it’s to lose fat.  Digesting your own muscles is a lousy idea.  In Protein Power, Drs. Eades & Eades wrote:

On typical low-calorie, high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets, protein intake is often marginal, and as a result as much as 50 percent of weight loss can be muscle weight.  Each pound of active muscle mass lost reduces your rate of metabolism.

Now, a pound of muscle loss isn’t going to dramatically affect your metabolism, but I don’t think most people – especially men — go on a diet hoping to shed a few pounds off their biceps and pecs.  Muscle makes a body look good, whether the body is male or female.

The biggest problem with the diet is, of course, the 62% carbohydrates.  If you’re insulin resistant — and most fat people these days are — all those carbs are going to drive up your insulin and tell your body to store a disproportionate share of the 1673 calories as fat.  Then you’ll starve at the cellular level and really feel hungry.  Keep it up, and you’ll probably make your insulin resistance worse.

And as I learned from an excellent article by Dr. Doug McGuff, insulin resistance can also shrink your muscles.  Dr. McGuff wondered why so many fat people have weak muscles — they are, after all, hauling a lot of weight around.  That ought to make them stronger, but usually doesn’t.  Here’s an edited version of what he figured out (the full article is worth the read):

The key to the paradox of the obese-yet weak client was insulin sensitivity. The modern Western diet is very high in refined carbohydrates when compared to the diet in our evolutionary past. In the face of very high carbohydrate intake, one’s glycogen stores will become completely full. Once the glycogen stores are completely full, glucose will begin to stack up in the blood stream. The evolutionary-based response is to increase insulin to drive more glycogen storage. However, pushing more glucose into a cell whose glycogen stores are full can be very damaging.

In the chronically overfed state, the body protects itself by decreasing the sensitivity of insulin receptors on the muscle cells and preserving (actually increasing) insulin sensitivity on the fat cells. By this mechanism blood sugar can be held in check without making the interior of the cells a syrupy mess, and energy is stored for future starvation (which never comes). The problem is, insulin not only controls glucose homeostasis, it is a major hormone for nutrient storage and all of the anabolic processes of the body. In the state we describe above, a vicious form of nutrient partitioning begins to occur. Nutrients used for growth and differentiation are shunted away from the muscle and the liver and are diverted to body fat. The muscles become smaller and weaker and the liver becomes infiltrated with fat as it desperately tries to produce VLDL.

Not a pretty picture, is it?  I know, because by the time I was 14, I was a fat kid with skinny muscles.  I finally started reshaping my body a bit when my older brother bought some barbells and more or less insisted we work out together.  Our high-school health teacher also us to cut back on sugar, potatoes and bread if we wanted to lose weight, so I did.  Then the low-fat diet craze hit, and I got stupid all over again.

Now I’m at least smart enough to know that Smart Ones aren’t going to help most people lose weight and keep it off, and neither will Weight Watchers.  They claim a success rate of nearly 50%, based on a study they funded.  But it’s interesting how they came up with that figure. 

First off, the study only included people who were already lifetime members.  To become a lifetime member, you have to reach your goal weight and stay there for six weeks.  That means all the people who yelled “I’m starving!” and quit after a month or so were excluded …  as were all the people who stuck it out but didn’t reach their goal weight.

After five years, most of the lifetime members included in the study had regained at least half of what they lost —  but Weight Watchers defined “success” as weighing 5% less than when they first joined.  So if you started at 200 pounds, reached your goal weight of 170, and went back up to 190, you were counted as successful.  Wow.  Sounds like “budget-cutting” in Washington.

A blogger analyzed the study, crunched his own numbers based on Weight Watchers’ enrollment figures, and calculated something closer to 6% of all members ever reaching their goal weight and staying there for six weeks … and when he crunched them again, counting only people who stayed at their goal weight for five years, he calculated a success rate of about two in a thousand.

I’d say the best thing Weight Watchers could do is reinforce their floors.

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The last time I had a checkup, my blood pressure was 111/65.  It’s pretty much always in that range, but the nurse who checked it seemed pleasantly surprised and commented, “You must watch your salt.”

Well, of course I watch my salt.  I don’t like cleaning up spills.  So I watch carefully as I shake little blizzards of salt onto my eggs, steaks, pork chops, vegetables, salads, soups and stews.  Yesterday, when we stopped at a McDonald’s during the trip home from Illinois, I salted my mushroom-Swiss burger.  Truth is, I put salt on just about everything except cheese and fruit.  I guess that explains why my blood pressure is about 20 points below average for a man my age.

And I’m not the only who reaches for the salt shaker at mealtime:  according to news reports, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg puts so much salt on his bagels, they end up tasting like pretzels.  He puts extra salt on salty popcorn.  He even salts his pizza.  Clearly, Hizzoner loves salt.

So naturally, he recently announced a plan to “encourage” (ahem, ahem) restaurants and food manufacturers to reduce the salt in their products –  to help prevent heart disease and strokes, doncha know.  Amazing, but typical for a politician.  Sure, I love my salt … but the rest of you folks out there should cut back on the stuff, and by gosh, I’m going to help you do it.

I’m not sure which annoys me more:  the bad government or the bad science.  This is certainly a bit an overreach for the mayor of New York City.  As a New York Times article explains, Hizzoner hopes his plan will reduce salt intake across the country.

Excuse me?!  I wouldn’t live in New York City if you paid me, and I certainly wouldn’t vote for Bloomberg if I did.  How did he end in my charge of my salt consumption?  We all know he has presidential ambitions, but he should probably wait to win a national election before assuming office.

Perhaps hoping to avoid looking like the nanny-state busybody he is, Bloomberg announced that the salt reductions are “voluntary.”  Suuuuuure, they are.  If any two words in the English language don’t belong in the same sentence, they are 1) government and 2) voluntary.  As George Washington wrote, the essence of government is force — that’s why he considered government a necessary evil at best.  Anyone who thinks reducing salt will be strictly voluntary should read this passage from the New York Times article:

The city’s campaign against salt resembles its push to cut trans fat from restaurant foods, which began with a call for voluntary compliance. When that did not work, the city passed a law to force restaurants to eliminate trans fat.

In other words, you better volunteer to follow our guidelines, or we’ll force you.

The science is just as bad, for all kinds of reasons.  Take a look at the rationale behind this “voluntary” reduction:

The plan, for which the city claims support from health agencies in other cities and states, sets a goal of reducing the amount of salt in packaged and restaurant food by 25 percent over the next five years.  Public health experts say that would reduce the incidence of high blood pressure and should help prevent some of the strokes and heart attacks associated with that condition.

Public health experts are such wild optimists.  The only result we can reliably predict from reducing the salt in packaged foods is that there will be less salt in packaged foods.  I seriously doubt people will eat less of the stuff.  In fact, I predict the public reaction over those five years will be something like this:

Year One:  Hmmm, this is kind of bland.  Hand me the salt shaker, will you?  (shake)
Year Three:  Wow, this is tasteless.  Pass the salt, will you?  (shake-shake-shake)
Year Five:  What the @#$% is this, cardboard?  Give me the salt!  (shake-shake-shake-shake-shake)

And even if the public is fooled into consuming less salt, there’s no evidence the result will be fewer strokes and heart attacks. Back in 1998, Gary Taubes wrote an excellent article on the subject titled The (Political) Science of Salt.  It’s a long article, but here’s my synopsis:

Some scientists claimed they found a teensy bit of a correlation between salt intake and cardiovascular disease decades ago, so they announced the “salt kills!” hypothesis and have been doggedly defending it ever since … even though many other scientists have found no correlation whatsoever, as well as mathematical problems with the correlations reported in the first place. 

Sound familiar?  It’s just like the “science” behind the “saturated fat kills!” theory.  And once again, shortly after the theory was announced, the geniuses in government decided they’d better alert the public right now instead of waiting for actual scientific evidence to confirm it.  That confirmation never came in, but uh … well, you know … we already told ‘em to cut back on salt, so we’d better keep promoting the idea. 

All we know from the evidence is that cutting back on salt will result in slightly lower blood pressure for some people with hypertension.  We don’t know that it will save their lives.  For the rest of us, it’s probably worthless and might even be a bad idea.  Here are some quotes from Gary’s article:

University of Copenhagen researchers analyzed 114 randomized trials of sodium reduction, concluding that the benefit for hypertensives was significantly smaller than could be achieved by antihypertensive drugs, and that a “measurable” benefit in individuals with normal blood pressure (normotensives) of even a single millimeter of mercury could only be achieved with an “extreme” reduction in salt intake. “You can say without any shadow of a doubt,” says Drummond Rennie, a JAMA editor and a physiologist at the University of California (UC), San Francisco, “that the [NHLBI] has made a commitment to salt education that goes way beyond the scientific facts.”

After decades of intensive research, the apparent benefits of avoiding salt have only diminished. This suggests either that the true benefit has now been revealed and is indeed small, or that it is nonexistent, and researchers believing they have detected such benefits have been deluded by the confounding influences of other variables.

There is a correlation between hypertension and cardiovascular disease, by the way.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean hypertension causes cardiovascular disease.  The correlation could be explained by any number of other variables, such as:

  • Refined carbohydrates produce high blood sugar and high levels of insulin, which in turn are both bad news for your arteries.  Refined carbohydrates also cause water retention, which raises your blood pressure.  (So if you really want to reduce your blood pressure, give up the sugar and starch.)
  • Blood pressure tends to go up as we get older.  (Mine hasn’t, but bear with me here.)  We’re also more likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes as we get older.
  • Stress causes your body to produce more cortisol, which can damage your arteries.  Stress also raises your blood pressure.
  • Eating lots of vegetables may be good for your heart.  Vegetables are also high in potassium, which lowers blood pressure.

Even if hypertension causes cardiovascular damage all by itself, the clinical evidence says it takes an extreme reduction in salt intake to budge the blood-pressure meter.  Mayor Bloomberg’s “voluntary” 25 percent reduction isn’t exactly extreme.  It’s just a recipe for bland food.  It won’t do diddly for the city’s health.  (Excuse me, I meant the nation’s health.  The mayor also wants to help those of us unfortunate enough to live outside his jurisdiction, you know.) 

Even the usually pro-government New York Times seems a little dubious about Bloomberg’s latest attempt to regulate us into eating the way he thinks we should:

While most food companies say they agree at least with the goal of reducing salt, some medical researchers have questioned the scientific basis for the initiative, saying insufficient research had been done on possible effects. While agreeing that reducing salt is likely to lower average blood pressure, they say it can lead to other physiological changes, some of which may be associated with heart problems. An elaborate clinical trial could weigh the pluses and minuses of cutting salt in a large group of people. But that would cost millions, and it has not been done.

Dr. Michael H. Alderman, a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said the city’s initiative, if successful in reducing salt, would amount to an uncontrolled experiment with the public’s health. “I’m always worried about unintended consequences,” he said.

Yup … like that uncontrolled experiment that told everyone to cut back on fat, and had the unintended consequence of sparking an epidemic of type 2 diabetes.  But my favorite sentence in the article is this one:

The city’s salt campaign is in some ways more ambitious and less certain of success than the ones it waged against smoking and obesity.

Less certain of success?  How exactly are we defining success here?  Were Hizzoner’s campaigns against smoking and obesity successful?  Have thousands of New Yorkers given up smoking?  Did those calorie-count menus Bloomberg demanded inspire them to eat less and lose weight? 

I must’ve missed those headlines.  I guess I was too busy looking for the salt shaker so I could add some flavor to my eggs.

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A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that consuming saturated fat is not associated with cardiovascular disease.  Never mind the usual problem of noticing an association and then confusing it with cause and effect … these researchers say there’s not even an association:

A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD.

A meta-analysis basically means they studied other studies and evaluated the data.  Man, this news must come as a total shock to most nutrition researchers.  I mean, it’s not like anyone’s ever come up with similar results before. 

Uh, wait … actually I seem recall plenty of similar results. Not even a year ago, researchers who published a meta-analysis study in the Archives of Internal Medicine had this to say:

Strong evidence supports valid associations (4 criteria satisfied) of protective factors, including intake of vegetables, nuts, and “Mediterranean” and high-quality dietary patterns with CHD, and associations of harmful factors, including intake of trans-fatty acids and foods with a high glycemic index or load.

Cool … vegetables and nuts may be protective.  I like vegetables and nuts.  Trans fats are bad — no surprise there. And wouldn’t you know it:  foods with a high glycemic index or load are associated as “harmful factors.”  That would be sugar and starch.

But what’s really interesting is the association they didn’t find:

Insufficient evidence (2 criteria) of association is present for intake of supplementary vitamin E and ascorbic acid (vitamin C); saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids; total fat; -linolenic acid; meat; eggs; and milk.

No associations for total fat, saturated fat, or consuming meat, eggs and milk.  These, of course, are the foods the anti-fat hysterics have spent 30 years hectoring us to give up.

Those studies are recent, but they’re hardly the first to exonerate saturated fat in the mysterious case of Who Gave Uncle Herman A Heart Attack.  Here’s the conclusion of a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007:

Our findings suggest that diets lower in carbohydrate and higher in protein and fat are not associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease in women. A higher glycemic load was strongly associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

So we’re back to sugar and starch.  And here are some quotes from a paper titled The low fat/low cholesterol diet is ineffective, published in the European Heart Journal in 1997:

Remarkably, no primary prevention trial of sufficient size or sensitivity to examine the effect of a low total and saturated fat diet alone has ever been conducted. All six primary prevention trials involved alteration of one or more other risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure and exercise. Curiously, the third and most recent of these small studies actually showed a significant adverse effect on coronary and total mortality.

In other words, more people died — from heart disease or otherwise — in the low-fat group.  I don’t think it’s all that curious. But, to continue:

The MRC study followed 252 men randomized to a very low fat diet or no change in diet over three years: the low fat diet was poorly tolerated but achieved a 10% reduction in cholesterol. There was no difference in the rate of reinfarction or death and the researchers concluded that the low fat has no place in the treatment of myocardial infarction.

The commonly-held belief that the best diet for the prevention of coronary heart disease is a low saturated fat, low cholesterol is not supported by the available evidence from clinical trials.

I guess the anti-fat hysterics missed that paper.  And they probably missed this analysis of the Women’s Health Initiative study as well:

Over a mean of 8.1 years, a dietary intervention that reduced total fat intake and increased intakes of vegetables, fruits, and grains did not significantly reduce the risk of CHD, stroke, or CVD in postmenopausal women and achieved only modest effects on CVD risk factors, suggesting that more focused diet and lifestyle interventions may be needed to improve risk factors and reduce CVD risk.

You gotta love the way some scientists explain away results they don’t like.  Notice the last part of the conclusion:  Uh … gee, uh … well, it’s not that the low-fat diet theory is wrong or anything, you see, it’s just, uh … we may need more focused diet and lifestyle changes.

I could quote more studies, but you get the idea.  The once high-flying theory that fatty diets cause heart attacks and low-fat diets prevent them has been shot down over and over by the evidence.  So naturally, some of today’s researchers still come to the obvious conclusion:  We need to produce fake pig meat to prevent heart disease.

Okay, technically that isn’t the reason scientists are trying to produce pork from stem cells.  The main reason given in the online article is to

turn pig stem cells into strips of meat that scientists say could one day offer a green alternative to raising livestock, help alleviate world hunger, and save some pigs their bacon.

Well, if it keeps third-world populations from living on starches, I guess that would be an improvement.  But please, let’s not confuse this stuff with real meat.  Check out how they’re producing pork in a lab:

To make pork in the lab, Post and colleagues isolate stem cells from pigs’ muscle cells. They then put those cells into a nutrient-based soup that helps the cells replicate to the desired number. So far the scientists have only succeeded in creating strips of meat about 1 centimeter (a half inch) long; to make a small pork chop, Post estimates it would take about 30 days of cell replication in the lab.

I think I’ll pass on the stem-cell bacon.  Meat isn’t nutritious just because it’s meat; it’s nutritious because of what the meat eats when it’s still alive and wandering around on hooves:  grass and bugs and other foods created by Mother Nature.  A lot of that good nutrition ends up in the fat.  But of course, some researchers are convinced we need to alter that fat:

There are tantalizing health possibilities in the technology. Fish stem cells could be used to produce healthy omega 3 fatty acids, which could be mixed with the lab-produced pork instead of the usual artery-clogging fats found in livestock meat. “You could possibly design a hamburger that prevents heart attacks instead of causing them,” Matheny said.

Amazing.  After all the research disputing the theory that saturated fat causes heart attacks, we’re still hearing about artery-clogging saturated fat.  Yes, perhaps we should put technology to work on that.  We could manufacture something better … just like when corn-oil margarine replaced butter.  Fortunately, the reporter had the good sense to talk to someone who believes in real food:

Some experts warn lab-made meats might have potential dangers for human health. “With any new technology, there could be subtle impacts that need to be monitored,” said Emma Hockridge, policy manager at Soil Association, Britain’s leading organic organization… She also said organic farming relies on crop and livestock rotation, and that taking animals out of the equation could damage the ecosystem.

That’s one of the concepts explained so brilliantly in Lierre Keith’s book The Vegetarian Myth:  the soil needs animals.  It doesn’t need stem cells raised in a nutritive soup, and it certainly doesn’t need the animals to go away.

And frankly, some of those possible “subtle effects” are worrisome.  A couple of times in my life, I’ve put my foot into a slipper only to find a roach had taken up residence there.  Both occasions produced a reaction known colloquially as “screaming like a girl.”

Now imagine some renegade stem cells escaping from the meat laboratory and merging with other live hosts.  Years from now, I could stick my foot into my slipper and end up with some half-roach, half-pig thing grabbing my toe and oinking at me furiously as I try to kill it with a newspaper.

Then I really would have a heart attack.

p.s. — I’ll be out of town this weekend. If I’m slow to deal with comments, that’s why.

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Wes Bertrand and Kevin Koskella, creators of the excellent blog Healthy Mind/Fit Body, conducted an interview with me last week and posted it on their site yesterday.  You can listen to the interview on this page, or download it into iTunes.  You’ll also find links to other podcasts and informative articles on their site.

Enjoy.  I certainly did.

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When I was a kid in the 1960s, nutrition labels were pretty much non-existent. People who wanted to lose weight usually just put a little less food on their plates and cut out the obvious offenders, like desserts and potatoes. If you actually wanted to know exactly how many calories were in your food, you had to go buy a book.  Almost nobody did … but amazingly, there were fewer fat people.

Now nutrition labels are everywhere, but there are more fat people. I’m surprised the proponents of the Lipid Hypothesis didn’t leap to the obvious conclusion: nutrition labels must make people gain weight … I mean, just look at the correlation.

You’d think this little bit of history would convince the high priests of the Holy Church of Accepted Advice For Living A Long And Healthy Life that accurate calorie-counts aren’t the key to losing weight. And of course, you’d be wrong. They’re still convinced it’s all about counting calories. Take a look at this video:

Ohmigosh, the calorie counts on restaurant meals and pre-packaged meals are off by an average of 18 percent! Horrors! No wonder we’re all waddling around these days. This study naturally received a lot of media attention; evil restaurants making us fat and all that. Here’s my favorite headline, from this online article about the study:

Study: Restaurants Lie About Calorie Count

Ah, I see:  they’re lying to us!  That’s quite an interesting slant, especially since the article itself included this paragraph:

The researchers and other experts aren’t accusing restaurants and food companies of trying to deceive customers. They said most of the discrepancies can be explained by variations in ingredients, portion sizes and testing methods. For example, the teenager behind the counter might have put too much mayonnaise on one sandwich.

I guess journalism school ain’t what it used to be. But if I get started on media bias, I’ll be writing for days, so back to the “experts” in the video …

They’re convinced the inaccurate calorie counts are making us fat. The co-author of Eat This, Not That — one of the many worthless diet books out there — even warns us that being off by 18% could result in gaining 30 to 40 pounds per year.

Wow! Imagine diligently counting your calories for a full year and ending up 40 pounds heavier. You’d be so shocked by the inexplicable weight gain, it would never even occur to you (after, say, gaining the first 20 pounds) to cancel out that extra 18% by thinking to yourself, “Hmmm, my calorie limit might be a little too high. Maybe I’ll reduce it a bit.”

But even if people were actually that stupid, Mr. Eat This Not That’s calculation is based on these assumptions — not a one of which is true:

  • People religiously count calories, and continue counting calories even if they gain 40 pounds in a year.
  • People eat nothing but pre-packaged food and restaurant meals and therefore depend on precise calorie counts.
  • Our metabolisms never adjust to what we eat, so our daily caloric needs always stay the same.
  • Every time we exceed those daily caloric needs by 100 calories, we gain exactly 0.02857 pounds.

In other words, they still believe gaining or losing weight works like a bank account: you have a fixed number of expenses to be paid daily from the account (your basal metabolism), and everything else depends on deposits (eating) and withdrawals (activity). The bank counts every calorie.

So by gosh, if you want to lose 10 pounds this year, just cut 100 calories from your daily intake, and you can start shopping for that smaller dress by Christmas. But if you accidentally deposit an extra 100 calories per day — darn those teenage counter clerks with their extra mayo! — you’ll gain 10 pounds.

The bank-account analogy only works if you add a crazy banker to the equation — so crazy, not even the Federal Reserve would hire him. If he’s decided your account should stay at the same level, he doesn’t really care if you deposit a little more or a little less … he’ll just adjust the expenditures and the interest rates until your account is back to where he likes it.

On the other hand, if you eat foods that jack up your insulin, you send a coded message to the banker telling him to build up your account — like it or not. You may think you’re consuming just enough calories to cover your daily expenses, only to discover that he cut your heating bill and deposited them anyway.

In Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes recounted a study in which naturally-lean prisoners were fed an extra 1,000 calories per day for six months. If it’s true that every calorie counts, they should’ve all gained 50 pounds. Not one did. Most only gained a few pounds. Their bodies simply adjusted to the higher intake. As soon as the experiment was over, they returned to their previous weights — and none of them counted calories to do it.

My son’s weight is also remarkably stable.  He’s always the same size, always has the same six-pack abs, year in and year out. He consumes well over a million calories in a year, but doesn’t count any of them. Do these experts really believe he just happens to eat exactly the right number of calories every year — with better than 99% accuracy? That’s ridiculous. His hormones tells him how much to weigh, then adjust his appetite and metabolism to keep him there.

Very few people gain 40 pounds in a year, and trust me, the ones who do aren’t counting calories or anything else.  And since most of us eat a mix of packaged foods, restaurant foods and home-cooked meals, counting our daily calories precisely is nearly impossible. It’s also unnecessary, if we eat the rights foods.

Yesterday morning I had an omelet with sautéed onions, spices, raw-milk cheese and sour cream on top. My wife made it, she didn’t measure anything, and we split it. (In our case, that means I ate about 2/3 of it.) I have no idea what the calorie count was.

It rained all afternoon, so we took the girls to the mall to get them out of the house. We stopped for lunch in the food court, but I didn’t eat. I wasn’t trying to restrict my calories; I just wasn’t hungry, so nothing appealed to me. Later in the evening I had another one of my wife’s concoctions: a mix of spaghetti squash, grass-fed hamburger, onions, alfredo sauce, and a bit of tomato sauce. Delicious.

Once again, I have no idea how many calories I consumed. Nor do I care, because I don’t calories. I eat the foods I know are good for me. I keep my insulin down. When I do that, I don’t have to control my appetite. My appetite takes care of itself.

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It’s amazing what you find while unpacking after a cross-country move.  In the boxes that contained the contents of my desk drawers, for example, I found random post-it notes with phone numbers written on them … no names, no idea whose numbers they were.  It’s been years since I staggered home from a bar, so the numbers might have even belonged to people I intended to call.  I was tempted to dial a few of them, but my curiosity was overridden by the potential for embarrassment.

“Hi, this is Tom Naughton.  Was I supposed to call you, say, six years ago?  Oh, the casting workshop!  Right.  No, no, no … I’m sure you would’ve made a fine scene partner.  It’s just … uh … I was so intimidated by your acting talent, I was afraid I’d drag you down.  What?  Well, of course I’m not very convincing!  That’s exactly my point.  Hello?  Hello?”

Among other assorted and mysterious junk, I also found one side of a cardboard package for something called “SmartMeat.”  I vaguely remember buying SmartMeat at the Costco in Burbank, but that was years ago.  For the life of me, I don’t know why I saved part of the package.  We only tried the stuff once and didn’t care for it, which means it’s unlikely I thought to myself, “I must keep this package so I’ll never forget the brand name, even if we someday decide we can’t stand California and move 2,000 miles away.”

And the fact that I tried SmartMeat at all means I still believed it was smart to cut the fat from my diet, so obviously I wasn’t thinking, “Hey … some years from now I might produce a documentary called Fat Head and then start a blog.  I should keep this as a reminder of SmartMeat so I can make fun of it.”

But I did keep it, for whatever reason.  And I’m certainly going to make fun of SmartMeat, and of myself for buying it.  Take a look at the pitch on the package:

Yup … for 30 years, Americans have been hoping for low-fat steaks that taste great.  That’s because for more than 30 years, Americans have been bamboozled into thinking fatty, juicy steaks will kill them.  SmartMeat steaks to the rescue!

But I’m using the word steaks rather loosely here.  SmartMeat looked like a steak, it was shaped like a steak, we grilled it like a steak, and it even tasted a wee bit like a steak.  But as I read the package again today, I realized the manufacturer (and that’s the correct term, as you’ll see shortly) never actually labeled it as a steak.  That’s because SmartMeat is a beef product … probably in the same way Cheez-Wiz is a cheese product.

In fact, as you can see from the label, SmartMeat is a whole new grade of beef.  It was even developed that way, by gosh.  Sadly, it didn’t occur to me during that particular shopping trip that beef should never be developed.  Film should be developed.  Ideas should be developed.  But beef should be raised, preferably as part of a cow.

The whole purpose of all that SmartMeat R&D was apparently to produce these bragging rights:

Okay, so I ate a low-fat steak … I mean, beef product.  No big deal, right?  But there’s a problem with low-fat beef:  take away the fat, and most of the flavor goes with it.  Clearly the SmartMeat people needed to find a way to enhance the taste.  And that’s where the horror show begins:

Now keep in mind, these looked like marbled steaks.  And yet 63 percent of the fat was removed and replaced with “marbling ingredients.”  I’m not sure I even want to know how they did this.  I picture the steaks (soon to be beef products) spending a leisurely afternoon soaking in a vat of chemicals formulated to dissolve away most of the naturally-occurring animal fat, then taking a ride down a conveyer belt so a piece of industrial equipment can inject them with marbling ingredients.  And what lovely ingredients they are.

I can’t figure out why water was listed twice, but at least I understand the word.  I also recognize partially hydrogenated soybean oil.  That’s trans fat … the stuff that knocks down your HDL and weakens the walls of your cells.

(Yes, Mr. Naughton, but the Guy From CSPI assured us trans fats were safe, and surely it’s a small price to pay to avoid all that icky animal fat, don’t you think?)

Hydrolyzed soy protein means the product contains MSG.  The idea is to add some taste, but if you read up on the stuff, it’ll make you lose your appetite … and I found this description on site that’s actually pro-soybean:

The extraction process of hydrolysis involves boiling in a vat of acid (e.g., sulfuric acid) and then neutralizing the solution with a caustic soda.

The resultant sludge is scraped off the top and allowed to dry. In addition to soy protein it contains free-form excitotoxic amino acids (e.g., MSG) and other potentially harmful chemicals including cancer-causing chemicals in many cases. A newer method of hydrolysis involves the use of bacteria by itself or in addition to the chemical processes described above. There is a possibility that genetically-manipulated bacteria may be used.

In almost all cases, hydrolyzed soy protein contains a significant amount of genetically-manipulated soy. The hydrolyzed protein products currently added to foods should be considered a detriment to one’s health.

Yuuuuummy, eh?  I remember how my grandma used to always boil her chickens in sulfuric acid.  Those were some awesome Sunday dinners.

(But monosodium glutamate IS yummy, Mr. Naughton!  Since we felt compelled to remove the icky animal fat from our steaks … excuse me, from our “beef products,” we had to find a substitute.  You wouldn’t want to eat a tasteless st– er, beef product, would you?)

The other ingredients were a mystery to me, so I had to look them up.  Here’s what I found on vegetable mono- and diglycerides:

These not-quite-whole fats are common food additives used to blend ingredients together that don’t naturally blend well, such as oil and water. Think of processed peanut butter like Jif. It contains mono- and diglycerides to give it a creamy consistency, and to prevent the oil from separating and sitting on the top. Just like hydrogenated oils, mono- and diglycerides increase the shelf life of foods, but they are on the Generally Recognized As Safe list according to the FDA.

See, that’s the problem with skinny cows.  You can’t just squirt water into them to make them juicier, because the stuff will separate.  So if you use a chemical process to produce a skinny beef product that needs some artificial marbling, you have to mix up some trans fats and water, then bind them togther with not-quite-whole fats.  Otherwise the water will just squirt out during grilling and douse your charcoals.  But hey, anything approved by the FDA has to be okay.

(Mr. Naughton, you tried one of our st– beef products.  It was juicy, wasn’t it?  Let’s see you try making a juicy product after removing the icky animal fat, SmartGuy!)

Of course, it’s not enough to support the soy industry with hydrogenated soybean oil and hydrolyzed soy protein.  We should also toss in some soy lecithin.  The pro-soy web site had this to say about the stuff:

Soy lecithin (E322) is extracted from soybeans either mechanically or chemically. It’s actually a byproduct of the soybean’s oil. Some people use it as a supplement, because it has a high value of the nutrient choline. Choline is good for heart health and brain development. But that’s not the reason soy lecithin is used as an additive in foods. It possesses emulsification properties. This means it can keep a candy bar “together” by making sure that the cocoa and the cocoa butter don’t separate. It is also used in bakery items to keep the dough from sticking and to improve its ability to rise.

Since soybean are one of the cheapest crops in the US (thanks in part to federal subsidies to growers), it makes sense to use a cheap, natural soy derived emulsifier in food processing.

Cool … the next time someone tells me to keep it together, I’ll roll myself in some soy lecithin.  And I really appreciated the reminder that my tax dollars are making Archer Daniels Midland rich.  I didn’t see anything online to indicate soy lecithin is a toxin and it may even be good, but I generally avoid soy, and I certainly don’t expect to find it in my st–  beef product.

(Trust us, Mr. Naughton, it’s good for your heart!  The soy people wouldn’t lie to us about something that important.)

My favorite ingredient is the sodium benzoate, because of what I found on it.  Apparently, Coca-Cola has promised to remove the stuff from Diet Coke.  Here’s part of that story:

Coca-Cola is phasing out the use of the controversial additive sodium benzoate in Diet Coke on the back of consumer demand for more natural products…. However, the additive removal is only currently planned for products sold in Britain. The Coca-Cola Company could not confirm if any other countries would follow suit.

Sodium benzoate is used as a preservative in drinks, providing safety and stability for the product. It has proved a controversial additive, as recent studies have highlighted health concerns from its use… Last year, research linked the product to cell damage. The study was conducted by professor Peter Piper from Sheffield University, an expert in molecular biology and biotechnology… Benzoate appeared to attack cells’ mitochondria, damaging their ability to prevent oxygen leaks that create free radicals. Yeast cells were used because of their similarity to human ones, but no research on humans has been done.

I’d say research on humans has been done, at least informally.  I’m glad I stopped drinking diet sodas.

(Mr. Naughton, for pete’s sake!  You don’t expect us to sell a beef product that could actually spoil someday, do you?  What if you need to leave town for a couple of months with some SmartMeat sitting in your refrigerator?)

But my favorite nugget about sodium benzoate was this one:

It is also used in fireworks as a fuel in whistle mix, a powder which emits a whistling noise when compressed into a tube and ignited.

And to think I compressed SmartMeat into my own tube.  There was probably some whistling and fireworks afterwards, but I don’t remember.  I just know I feel dumb for ever buying this chemical concoction.  The steaks I buy now have one ingredient:  grass-fed beef.

Now that’s actually smart.

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